This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
North Korea has ordered all military units to submit daily reports on their preparations for winter, frustrating military officials who feel like they are being pitted against each other in competition for firewood and other resources after the government reduced their allotments of coal and gas, military sources told RFA.
This year winter weather has come earlier than usual. Snowfall hindered the efforts of military units to go out into the forests to collect firewood. Even if the weather had been better, military units may not have had enough gasoline to haul the wood back to base given the supply issues.
“In the mountainous area of Ryanggang province, a lot of snow has already accumulated, making it difficult for the soldiers who cut firewood, and it is also difficult to transport the firewood to the unit,” a military source in the central northern province of Ryanggang told RFA’s Korean Service Monday.
“Additionally, the military authorities are supplying the units with much less gasoline this year, and the market price of gas is way too high, so the units cannot afford to operate any of the vehicles that transport firewood,” said the source.
The General Staff Department, the General Political Bureau, and the Ministry of Defense dispatched agents on Nov. 1 to encourage the winter preparation performance of units, the source said.
Units are required to write detailed plans on how they will prepare for the winter and report daily on their progress, said the source, who requested anonymity for security reasons. But unit leaders are worried that a lack of resources will hinder their efforts, said the source.
“As each unit’s capabilities have been mobilized to collect firewood, the most important winter preparation task, sealing windows in buildings and performing maintenance on ondol systems have fallen on the backburner,” the source said, referring to the traditional Korean underfloor heating systems.
“In addition, soldiers have to make enough kimchi to last the winter. They are complaining about having to work day and night. But the authorities do not take their situation into consideration. They feel like the daily reports are a way of driving each unit to compete with each other to see who can prepare the best,” the source said.
In the plains of North Pyongan province, two provinces to the west of Ryanggang, coal is the heating source of choice, as there are few areas to collect firewood, a military source there told RFA.
“This year, the amount of coal allocated to each unit is insufficient, so it is necessary for us to gather firewood instead. But since trees are so hard to find, the soldiers dig for peat as a substitute. Wet peat must be dried before it can be burned, and it cannot be used in all applications,” said the second source, who requested anonymity to speak freely.
The coronavirus pandemic has caused prices for firewood and other materials to rise sharply, according to the second source.
“Military officials are also expressing dissatisfaction with their superiors who are forcing them to compete with other military units on how well they are preparing, all while ignoring the situation of front-line units and failing to provide adequate supplies needed to prepare,” this source said.
Supply issues extend to more than just fuel and food. The Seoul-based Korea Times newspaper reported North Korea cannot supply even special forces units in its “million-man army” with proper winter uniforms.
Army regulations state that the uniforms should be replaced every year, but the government has supplied new winter uniforms only once in the last four years, the report said.
A lack of raw materials due to the shutdown of the border with China at the start of the coronavirus pandemic almost two years ago, combined with clothing manufacturers closing their operations during the resulting economic catastrophe were contributing factors.
Special forces units have even resorted to robbing civilians, former soldiers who escaped North Korea told RFA in a previous report.